Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The True Size of Africa (and ensuing thoughts)

[by Kenneth Field via Yfrog]

I have a talent of reading too much into things - my reaction to 'The True Size of Africa' map is no exception. I will freely admit that geography was never my strongest area (pun fully intended) of knowledge, but more than anything else I was taken by the (intentional or unintentional) implications of an altered perspective.

I posted this on my Facebook and there were two responses (verbatim as follows).
  1. Steve: I noticed Taiwan is part of China.
  2. Chelsea: I don't understand the point of this map@@ just to show how big Africa is? (bigger than China + America + some other western countries) Don't we all know that Africa is big?
I responded to Chelsea as follows (with edits):

I think it's about addressing a power-balance through altered perspective.

There's a term called 'Eurocentric' which applied mostly to the Western world - but we can add China and the US to it also. It means that one (whether China/USA/Europe etc.) often assumes that it is the centre of the world (and big and mighty and important) in its own narratives (as in narratives of any type including news reports, movies, as well as novels etc).

In fact, think of how China is 中國 - the middle country (i.e., the centre of power rather than the periphery), and a lot of China's attitude (past and present) demonstrates of this conviction. Furthermore, projections of maps often play into this self-aggrandizing narrative. For instance, Europe is traditionally centered on a map because cartography started to develop in the age of mercantilism/imperialist expansion in Europe.

To visually see all these 'important' countries surrounded and dwarfed by Africa (which in terms of development and power, is peripheral and diminutive in comparison to the countries placed in its boundaries in this map) carries a kind of visual punch. Of course Africa being the site of so much imperialist conquest (consequently its modern fragmentation and woes) makes this all the more poignant. (That said perhaps considering 'Africa' as a continent again is a Eurocentric perspective a la 'Heart of Darkness' - but that's another kettle of fish).

Taiwan has always been on the periphery of power; especially in the modern day, being engaged in a uneasy relationship with the Centre-Country (中國/China), we are perhaps more keenly aware of our own position as marginal. This is one speculation as to why this map would be less visually powerful from a Taiwanese perspective - what do you think?

Another possibility is that Taiwan's excellent education has made you very geographically informed (indeed, there is nothing special about this map - from a purely factual consideration).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that what matters here is not WHAT is being represented, but HOW it's being represented that matters.

To Steve I replied: Sadness. OTHER than that it's a cool map. Needless to say I am for Taiwanese independence. I tweeted to Mr. Fields: Love the map but is sad to see Taiwan presented as a part of China :(. This morning I found his reply: thanks. map doesn't distinguish PRC/ROC to avoid dispute RT @pseudoangela: Love map but sad to see Taiwan presented as part of China :(

I can understand Mr. Field's desire to 'avoid dispute,' which I interpret as wishing to remain neutral on the subject. However, if Taiwan is represented as a part of China, then surely neutrality is lost because it suggests that there is unity? There doesn't seem to be a way around taking sides on the PRC/ROC (One China vs. China and Taiwan) issue in terms of map-making. Unless Taiwan is shaded in grey and labelled 'Sovereignty in Dispute'?

...If I can slack off at work more later today I may come back to this. In the meantime comments are welcome.

p.s. however much I may read into the implications of this map, I just wanted to point out that the image does specifically state that it was created to combat 'immapancy - that is insufficient geographical knowledge,' i.e. ME - and I am grateful for this interesting means of remedy.


The biking viking said...

"desire to 'avoid dispute,' which I interpret as wishing to remain neutral on the subject"

Sorry, but in this context, "avoiding dispute" means following China's position, ie, Taiwan is being presented as part of China in order to avoid dispute, not because that reflects a wish to remain neutral, but because that reflects China's view. Any view that does not coincide with China's will lead to dispute. Such is the state of affairs when it comes to the issue of Taiwan's status, and that must never be forgotten.

Pseudoangela said...

@biking viking *nods vigorously*